Digest of terms


a modern ethical tradition subject to differing emphases, differing lines both of interpretation and of justification, and different levels of application (e.g. as a political philosophy or as a personal or social ethic). At its core is an emphasis on individual liberty which is to be protected from state or social interference so that individuals are free to (or have a right to) live as they see fit in so far as that is compatible with the same freedom for all. Liberalism thus prizes individual autonomy, permits great pluralism, and encourages tolerance. It is not, therefore, as often maintained, morally neutral. The ensuing system of liberal democracy typically involves a shared concern for civil and personal liberties including freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, and human rights. Certain kinds of equality are also prominent, especially equality of respect.

A further perspective is the public-private distinction. There is a private realm to be safeguarded from public intrusion unless the exercise of individual liberty causes harm to others. An important application of this principle has been the lifting of the legal ban on homosexual relationships, and their moral reappraisal. Still, what counts as 'harm' remains contentious, and liberals remain divided over the application of this and other liberty-limiting principles.

Liberalism is subject to criticism from communitarianism for its pronounced individualism.

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